Monday, April 26, 2010

Fashionably wrapped

On Friday several of us from the weaving class went to the Textile Museum to see a couple of exhibits: People Place and Thing and the Kashmiri Shawls.

People Place and Thing was interesting, but the Kashmiri Shawls were enthralling.

In the Kashmir valley of northwest India they used to weave amazing shawls made from the hair of Himalayan goats, called pashmina, or cashmere. They were light, colourful and very finely woven. In the early 19th century they became very popular in Europe, ladies would pay a hundred guineas for a handwoven Kashmiri shawl.

A Kashmiri shawl could have 250 warp threads to the inch, and could be five feet or more in width. Some shawls were so wide that they had to be woven in pieces and handsewn together. The stitches joining the woven pieces into a single shawl were so tiny as to be invisible to the naked eye!

The shawls quickly became very fashionable, and agents would travel to Kashmir to direct the weaving of designs currently favoured by European fashions. Kashmiri weavers were initially resentful of this intrusion into their design process, but I guess the money talked and they began to weave to the dictates of European fashion.

As the shawls became ever more fashionable and in demand, there was strong pressure to learn to weave such shawls in Europe, to reduce the cost. The draw loom was invented, which allowed warp threads to be manipulated individually for the intricate shawl designs that were so popular. It took two people to operate a draw loom, one to weave and another to manipulate the draw strings and hooks to lift and lower the infinite combinations of warp threads for the intricate designs. The jacquard mechanism was added to the draw loom, this eliminated the need for "draw boys". Punch cards were made to specify the warp manipulation for each design, the cards were then fed into the jacquard mechanism which translated the holes in the cards into instructions to automatically raise or lower specific warp threads.

Very quickly the jacquard loom allowed far more intricate designs to be woven and the price of shawls dropped dramatically. By the late 19th century a shawl was selling for as little as 26 shillings. Europeans used sheep's wool (the weft) and silk (the warp), since pashmina was not strong enough for machine weaving. This made a heavier shawl, but apparently this was a small price to pay for the ability to weave the more intricate designs.

Original Kashmiri handwoven shawls remained expensive, and their designs were not as rich and complex as the newer jacquard loom weaves. By 1870 the Kashmiri weavers were pretty much put out of business. Unfortunately, there was an economic recession and famine at the same time, and in Hindu society weavers occupied a very low status. Very few of them earned enough to support a family at the best of times, and as a result of the collapse of demand for the shawls and the accompanying famine, many weavers died of starvation. Those that survived abandoned their looms to seek out other employment. Within a generation the skills of handweaving these beautiful shawls were lost forever.

European women wore their shawls as full-sized capes that draped attractively over the full hoop skirts also popular at the time.

The popular paisley design is named for the Scottish town of Paisley which is supposed to be the origin of this pattern, but it probably evolved from the traditional "Tree of Life" Kashmiri design. The Tree of Life was the palm, it was usually represented in a teardrop shape.

This is an unusual asymmetric shawl design. The idea for it was that a lady could fold it in such a way that only one quarter would show, and each quarter being different it would seem as if she had four different shawls depending on which quarter she displayed.

The four of us from the weaving class were completely in awe of these wonderful shawls. We are all amateur weavers, we know just enough to know how much we don't know. To see the work of master weavers like this was an amazing experience.


Wisewebwoman said...

What a sad story Annie, how much we have lost due to so-called capitalism.
I love that museum, been there several times.
I must get down to see those shawls next time I'm in TO.

Annie said...

Hi WWW, it is a sad story isn't it? I was kind of stunned by that part of it. In a saner world the artisans who created these lovely works of art would have been honoured not starved. I hope you get to the Textile Museum before this exhibit is over, but they always have something good on. The shawls are part of their permanent collection.

Barbara Anne said...

Amazingly beautiful work. It is so sad that such a skill is lost. I hope somehow there is someone who carried on.


Annie said...

Hi Barbara Anne, we win some we lose some, there are amazing things going on in textile arts today, always learning!